Tampons may contain ‘toxic levels’ of lead and arsenic, study warns – National

Tampons from several popular brands may contain toxic metals such as arsenic and lead, according to a recent study from the University of California, Berkeley.

The study, published in the latest issue of Environment Internationalfound that all 30 tampons tested from 14 brands – including organic tampons – contained lead, while some also showed worrying levels of other toxic metals such as arsenic.

“We took different products and tested them on a panel of 16 different metals. And we found concentrations of every one of the metals that we tested. For some of the metals, like lead, which is toxic, we found a presence in every one of the tampons that we tested. So we found a lot of metals,” said lead author Jenni Shearston, a postdoctoral student at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

But despite the high potential for public health hazards, she told Global News, little research has been done to measure chemicals in tampons.

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Menstruating women may use more than 7,400 tampons during their reproductive years, with each tampon remaining in the vagina for several hours, the study found. They are typically made of cotton, rayon or a blend of both materials.

A tampon consists of several parts, including (A) the non-woven outer layer, (B) the drawstring, (C) the absorbent core, (D) the applicator, and (E) the wrapper.

Environment International

In Canada, tampons are regulated as medical devices by Health CanadaThe health authority’s website states that it “ensures that tampons sold in Canada are safe, effective and of high quality, based on licensing, quality manufacturing and post-market surveillance requirements.”

The research shows that there are concerns that current regulations may not be sufficient.

Tampons are a concern because they can be a potential source of exposure to chemicals, including metals, as the skin of the vagina is more likely to absorb chemicals than skin elsewhere on the body, the study found.

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“A lot of the metals they found are naturally present in our bodies and our bodies naturally use them for all sorts of things,” explains Dr. Eboni January, an American gynecologist-obstetrician.

“But when it’s at toxic levels, that’s what concerns me the most. Lead was found in virtually every tampon and lead is not safe at any level,” she told Global News.

It has been discovered that metals increase the risk of dementia, infertility, diabetes and cancer. They can damage the liver, kidneys, brain and cardiovascular, nervous and endocrine systems.

“Arsenic is a known carcinogen, period,” January said. “It can cause lung cancer, skin cancer, bladder cancer, and fertility problems.”

She added that she believes the study was well conducted and hopes more research on the topic will follow.

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‘We found metals in everything we tested’

The researchers evaluated the levels of 16 metals (arsenic, barium, calcium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, mercury, nickel, lead, selenium, strontium, vanadium and zinc) in 30 tampons from 14 brands in the United States and Europe.

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They purchased the tampons between September 2022 and March 2023 in stores in the US, UK and Spain and from two major online retailers.

The researchers didn’t specify which brands they examined, but Shearston said they selected both brand-name and store-brand products that were more popular.

Metal concentrations varied depending on the country where the tampons were purchased, whether they were organic or non-organic, and whether they were store brand or A-brand tampons.

But there was one thing that was common, regardless of the type of tampon or where it was purchased: metal was found in every tampon sample.

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“What’s really important is the consistency of our results, the fact that we found metals in everything we tested, regardless of the brand or the characteristics of the product,” Shearston said.

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Lead concentrations were higher in non-organic tampons, but arsenic concentrations were higher in organic tampons.

In all tampon samples several toxic metals were detectable, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and vanadium. Lead had the highest concentration.

January isn’t sure why zinc and cadmium were often found together, but suspects it was for hygienic reasons.

“Zinc is antimicrobial. Maybe they put it in there from an antimicrobial standpoint. And those two together (zinc and cadmium) actually helped prevent bacteria,” she said.

How do metals get into tampons?

According to Shearston, metals can get into tampons in several ways.

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“One is that cotton, for example, is quite an accumulator of metals. So it could absorb metals that are naturally present in the soil, or water could absorb metals from fertilizers. So that’s one way that some of the metals could end up in some of these products,” she said.

“In addition, if the raw material, such as cotton, is grown near a source of pollution, for example near a road or near a lead factory, some of the metals from those sources can drift down and end up on the cotton.”

She noted that it is also possible that these metals are added during the manufacturing process, for example as an antimicrobial agent, as a pigment or as a whitener.

Therefore, the authors hope that tampon manufacturers will be required to test their products for toxic metals.

Global News reached out to Tampax maker Procter & Gamble and tampon owner Edgewell Personal Care for comment on the investigation, but neither company had responded by time of publication.

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Can it be absorbed by the body?

The study found that all tampons tested contained lead, but one important question remains unanswered: can these metals be absorbed by the body?

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“We don’t know if the lead can actually come out of the tampon and be absorbed into the body. So even though we find these metals in the tampon, we can’t say at this point whether it’s contributing to any health effect,” Shearston said.

She stressed the need for further research due to the widespread use of tampons.

While the exact effects of these metals are still unclear, January pointed to one worrying factor: the vagina’s absorbency.

“The vagina is very vascular,” she explained. “So it’s not flat like skin. It essentially has folds. And what that does is increase the surface area, and based on the type of cell layer that it is, there’s a greater risk of things getting absorbed into the vagina.”

She used the example of toxic shock syndrome, which occurs when certain toxins from bacteria can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the highly absorbent vaginal walls, which is often associated with tampon use.

“Given that the vagina is as absorbent as it is, the arsenic in these tampons, that was concerning to me as a gynecologist,” January said. “Women start their periods at the average age of 12. The average age of menopause is 51. So these women have been using a lot of tampons. This is chronic exposure.”

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Time to throw out the tampons?

There’s no reason to panic and throw out your tampons right away, but this finding does underscore the importance of continued research into women’s health products, Shearston said.

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While the study found that tampons contain metals, it stressed that more research is needed to determine whether and to what extent these metals are absorbed by the body and pose potential health risks.

January suggested discussing any concerns you have about the substances that may be in your tampons with your doctor.

“But we have other options,” she added. “You have the menstrual cups, you have the disc, you also have the reusable pads. So do your homework, educate yourself, contact the manufacturers and ask them to be transparent.”

Katie Dangerfield

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